By Alicia J. Batten
Q. We are told that ancient societies like those of Israel were “honor-shame cultures,” and see various examples of that in biblical stories. My question is more about NT theology. How do the honor-shame cultural values of New Testament authors inform and shape their theology, especially Christology?
A. This is an important question because the cultural values of honor and shame figure centrally in various New Testament texts’ articulation of Christology. It is widely agreed that crucifixion was one, if not the most dishonorable forms of execution within the Roman Empire. It was a horrible death and perceived as such by Greco-Romans and Jews. The victim would be stripped naked and publicly put to death. This public dimension of the death was especially humiliating. Thus the New Testament authors faced the challenge of the fact of the crucifixion and its dishonorable nature.
In the Gospel of Mark, for example, Jesus is abandoned by his disciples, tortured and strung up upon a cross, where he cries out to God. Mark does not belabor Jesus’ suffering, but he does not hide it either. The element of dishonor that Jesus has suffered is in fact a central element of Mark’s overall Christology. Here, the Christ is the suffering Son of God, degraded and bereft. In a sense, Mark grants a certain honor to something that most ancients would find repulsive. Mark redefines, in many ways, what it means to be a Messiah or Christ. The true Messiah is a humiliated, tortured figure. Such an idea must have been quite difficult for many ancient people to comprehend or even want to consider.
The Gospel of John, however, tells the story of the crucifixion in a very different way. For John, Jesus’ crucifixion is actually his glory. Jesus’ suffering is not stressed in this Gospel, as if the author is not at all comfortable with narrating the story of a humiliated Christ. Despite the crucifixion, John’s Jesus is presented as a more powerful and honorable figure; a very different characterization with regard to honor and shame from the one presented in the Gospel of Mark.
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